Was Einstein an Atheist?
Posted on 03 July 2017, 9:40
The recent National Geographic television series, Genius, about the life of Albert Einstein, prompted me to do a little research on the great scientist’s beliefs about God and the afterlife. Over the years, I had read somewhat conflicting statements by him and was never quite sure whether he was a hard-core atheist or an agnostic. In the eight-part television series, Einstein mentioned God five or six times, leaving me to wonder whether this was fact or the creation of the screenwriters.
According to various Internet sources, Einstein (below) declared himself an “agnostic.” However, he definitely did not believe in an anthropomorphic (humanlike) god or a personal one. His god was more of the cosmic consciousness type, a very abstract one. “I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal god is a childlike one,” he wrote in a 1949 letter to a friend. “You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”
According to biographer Walter Isaacson, Einstein viewed fanatical atheists as being “like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who – in their grudge against the traditional ‘opium of the people’ – cannot hear the music of the spheres.” Moreover, he did not oppose a belief in a personal God “as such a belief seems to me preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook.”
As for an afterlife, Einstein was more definite, saying he did not believe in the immortality of the individual. “An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise,” he is quoted, seemingly limiting his view of the afterlife to that of Judaism and other orthodox religions. He considered belief in an afterlife as “childish.”
Einstein seems to have been especially turned off to the idea of an afterlife by the angry God of the Hebrew Bible and the idea of an everlasting reward or punishment. In my brief research, I did not come upon anything indicating that Einstein was aware of the psychical research carried out by some of his peers in physics, such Sir William Crookes, Sir William Barrett, and Sir Oliver Lodge, or by biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Charles Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution. All of those esteemed scientists came to recognize a different kind of afterlife, one of spiritual evolution. Perhaps such an afterlife would have better appealed to Professor Einstein.
It was interesting to note in the television series that Crookes (below) was depicted giving a talk to an august body of scientists, including Einstein, about the threat of famine in Europe if countries did not add nitrogen to the soil, a development that would soon take place. As I understand it, Crookes’s research in the area of radiation established some foundation for later discoveries by Wilhelm Roentgen (X-ray) and Einstein (general relativity).
Crookes was one of the first scientists to study mediumship, closely observing the phenomena of mediums D. D. Home and Florence Cook under strictly controlled conditions. There was no doubt in his mind that he had witnessed such phenomena as levitations, apports, and materializations. However, most of his peers concluded that he had become too friendly with Home and that he had had a romantic interest in Cook, thereby affecting his objectivity and allowing him to be duped. It made no difference to them that Wallace and other respected men of science witnessed the same phenomena under lighted conditions in Crookes’s home, it all defied science and was unacceptable. “It argues ill for the boasted freedom of opinion among scientific men, that they have so long refused to institute a scientific investigation into the existence and nature of facts asserted by so many competent and credible witnesses, and which they are freely invited to examine when and where they please,” Crookes addressed the many scientists who refused to investigate the phenomena. “For my own part, I too much value the pursuit of truth, and the discovery of any new fact in nature, to avoid inquiry because it appears to clash with prevailing opinions.”
Crookes claimed that the phenomena he had observed over some three years of study “point to the existence of another order of human life continuous with this, and demonstrate the possibility in certain circumstances of communication between this world and the next.”
If the television screenwriters are to be believed, famed Russian Leo Tolstoy (below) was Einstein’s favorite author. In one scene, he is shown reading Tolstoy to his young son. In his book, A Confession, Tolstoy tells of the despair he began to feel as he approached his fiftieth birthday. “I often asked myself, if such a state of utter despair could be, what man was born to,” he wrote. “I sought an explanation of the questions, which tormented me in every branch of human knowledge; I sought that explanation painfully and long, not out of mere curiosity, not apathetically, but obstinately day and night; I sought it as a perishing man seeks safety, and I found nothing. My search not only failed, but I convinced myself that all those who had searched like myself had failed also, and come like me to the despairing conviction that the only absolute knowledge man can possess is this – that life is without meaning.”
In spite of his success as an author, his 1860 book War and Peace widely ranked as one of the greatest books ever, Tolstoy did not find the usual escape or repression methods available to most people satisfactory, and considered suicide. “Life cannot be measured by what we possess,” he further wrote of his struggle. “If we think so, we only delude ourselves…. Is there any meaning in life which can overcome the inevitable death awaiting me?”
Tolstoy looked to science but found no answers. “The problem of exact science is the succession of cause and effect in material phenomena,” he stated. “If exact science raises the question of finite cause, it stumbles against an absurdity…. Experimental science gives positive results, and shows the grandeur of man’s intellect, only when it does not inquire into finite causes; while, on the contrary, theoretical science only shows the greatness of man’s mental powers, is only a science at all, when it gets rid altogether of the succession of phenomena, and looks upon man only in relation to finite causes.” He went on to say that he saw metaphysics as the most important science of all and that if man is to overcome his despair he must believe in the infinite. “Without faith,” he asserted, “there is no life.”
If the picture painted of Einstein by the screenwriters is any indication, he was not a particularly happy man in his everyday living. He may not have experienced the despair of Tolstoy, at least in his most productive years, as he was able to find fulfilment and escape in his search for scientific truths. But he seems to have lived most of his life in a state of melancholy. One senses that he sometimes, especially in his declining years, wondered to what extent his scientific discoveries would contribute to the overall good and to which generation full fruition. While Tolstoy was able to overcome his despair by discovering in his later years an unorthodox form of Christianity, Einstein persisted in his unhappy march toward an abyss of nothingness, claiming that one life was enough for him. Whether that claim was out of sincere courage, pure indifference or mere bravado must remain unanswered in this realm of existence.
Another person portrayed in the television series was the pioneering psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. Einstein called upon Jung to help his son overcome some mental problems. Perhaps Einstein should have given more heed to Jung’s words in his book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul: “As a physician I am convinced that it is hygienic – if I may use the word – to discover in death a goal towards which one can strive; and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose. I therefore consider the religious teaching of a life hereafter consonant with the standpoint of psychic hygiene. When I live in a house which I know will fall about my head within the next two weeks, all my vital functions will be impaired by this thought; but if on the contrary I feel myself to be safe, I can dwell there in a normal and comfortable way.”
Tolstoy might have responded to Einstein’s comment that belief in an afterlife is “childish” by telling him that you don’t have to be a genius to understand it. In fact, Tolstoy begins one of his books with the words of Jesus, as quoted in Matthew xviii, 3: “Except ye ...become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
Next blog post: July 17
Very interesting article. People are always arguing about this particular topic.
Yvonne Limoges, Wed 5 Jul, 19:39
It seems it depends on one’s definition of “God” and I definitely don’t believe he believed in a personal one.
Based on his writings/comments it appears to me he may have seen patterns or designs enough within what he discovered within Math, Nature and the Cosmos that indicated to him a certain order…possibly an incomprehensible Intelligence behind it All.
I feel what he truly and personally believed in his heart and mind, I don’t believe he would fully share it because he was such an important figure in the world. He respected other’s beliefs, and I don’t think he would have wanted any controversy.
I believe his spirit primarily came on a special mission to bring the profound scientific ideas he was able to comprehend,
so he could then he could… reveal them to all humanity.
You say in your reply to me: ” In a way, it is a more heroic approach to life, i.e., leading a good and moral life for the sake of being a good person. It works for some people, mainly those who are very active, even in their older years and don’t take the time to stop and think, “What is the point of all this?”. I found this comment particularly interesting since I have just launched on Youtube the final of 3 programmes in my ‘This Life’ series. Its entitled ‘This Life, This Life’ and underlines precisely the point you are making (and Tolstoy!). At under 3 minutes long and with music, it is not too taxing to watch.
Also, I would add that Tom Campbell’s ‘Big TOE’ trilogy is a big and ponderous read at 820 large pages long, so if you look on Youtube you can get the same information, condensed in a much tighter version from one of his talks - about an hour or so long..
Keith P in England, Wed 5 Jul, 09:58
Thanks for that information. Campbell seems to offer much for those looking for a macro view of things, but there is not much there for a micro view of it all. I may very well be wrong, but it is much like looking for God and ignoring the survival issue, as I just mentioned to Keith. I believe that we should focus on the micro and let the macro unfold from what we discover there. It may very well be that some can start with the Big Picture, however abstract it may be, and successfully dissect it, thereby understanding the little pieces that contribute to it, but I think most of us have to start with scattered little pieces, as with a jigsaw puzzle, and slowly piece them together. The Big Picture is too abstract for my limited brain.
Michael Tymn, Tue 4 Jul, 21:58
Thank you for adding those Einstein quotes. As I mentioned, my research was very limited and I didn’t dig beyond what I found on the Internet.
That said, I still question what good it does to believe in a God or gods if consciousness does not survive physical death. Such a god does not give any real meaning to life. It is a humanistic approach. In a way, it is a more heroic approach to life, i.e., leading a good and moral life for the sake of being a good person. It works for some people, mainly those who are very active, even in their older years and don’t take the time to stop and think, “What is the point of all this?” This mindset is so well covered in the Tolstoy book mentioned. Incidentally, that book and others by Tolstoy are available at White Crow Books.
As I have said many times, I believe this is the failing of organized religions. They seem to think we have to identify and embrace God before accepting the reality of consciousness surviving death. Since there is no solid evidence of God beyond crediting miracles to Him, Her or It, they never really get to the evidence for survival. It is secondary. Therefore, the average person, religious or not, continues to flounder in a materialistic mindset.
Michael Tymn, Tue 4 Jul, 21:46
I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.
~Max Planck, as quoted in The Observer (25 January 1931)
John Archibald Wheeler, high priest of quantum mysteries, suspects that reality exists not because of physical particles but rather because of the act of observing the universe. “Information may not be just what we learn
about the world,” he says. “It may be what makes the world.”
Our observations, he suggests, might actually contribute to the creation of physical reality. To Wheeler we are not simply bystanders on a cosmic stage; we are shapers and creators living in a participatory universe.
Wheeler conjectures we are part of a universe that is a work in progress; we are tiny patches of the universe looking at itself— and building itself. It’s not only the future that is still undetermined but the past as well. And by peering back into time, even all the way back to the Big Bang, our present observations select one out of many possible quantum histories for the universe.
“I have a hunch that the universe is built like an enormous feedback loop, a loop in which we contribute to the ongoing creation of not just the present and the future but the past as well”.
Thomas Campbell’s My Big TOE explains this in detail. My Big TOE, written by a nuclear physicist in the language of contemporary Western culture, unifies science and philosophy, physics and metaphysics, mind and matter, purpose and meaning, the normal and the paranormal. The entirety of human experience (mind, body, and spirit) including both our objective and subjective worlds, are brought together under one seamless scientific understanding. If you have a logical, open, and inquisitive mind - an attitude of scientific pragmatism that appreciates the elegance of fundamental truth and the thrill of breakthrough - you will enjoy this journey of personal and scientific discovery. Based upon careful scientific research and logical deduction, this is a book for all who have an interest in the nature of the reality in which they exist. My Big TOE is not only about scientific theory, function, process, and discovery - but also speaks to each individual reader about their innate capabilities. Readers will learn to appreciate that their human potential stretches far beyond the limitations of the physical universe. This trilogy delivers the next major scientific conceptual breakthrough since relativity and quantum mechanics raised scientific eyebrows in the first half of the twentieth century. No catch, no megalomania, no hypothetical wackiness, no goofy beliefs, no unusual assumptions - just straightforward science that better describes the totality of our experience and provides a wealth of practical results and new understanding that can be applied personally and professionally by scientists and nonscientists alike.
Richard Dickison, Tue 4 Jul, 00:15
Thanks for this Mike, but I find myself surprised that the numerous pithy quotations Einstein insisted on issuing on spirituality and God did not make it into this piece. (and a personal God at that, as in ‘he’). Here are 14 such quotations and there are more. My personal favourite is number 5
I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.
Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.
My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.
The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.
Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe-a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.
The scientists’ religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.
There is no logical way to the discovery of elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.
The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious; It is the source of all true art and science.
We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.
Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the Gods.
When the solution is simple, God is answering.
God does not play dice with the universe.
God is subtle but he is not malicious.
Keith P in England., Mon 3 Jul, 21:20
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